Pacing, Pacing, Pacing

The thing about editing is that when it’s done right, almost no one notices it. This is an example of a superbly paced film. And when it’s really noticeable, it’s nearly unbearable or just disjointed.

This can be the result of both bad writing and bad editing. I, ultimately, define it on both merits and being an editor, really study each film like a piece of music.

It’s nearly impossible not to notice a song that goes off rhythm or changes tempo too quickly because our ears are naturally inclined to react to those changes. But our eyes aren’t as well trained to transmit that information. Given the onslaught of abrupt images, our eyes have been conditioned to believe a shot per second is a standard tempo. So I find more and more in film reviews, people will confuse a slower pace to a bad one. But it’s not.

Let’s compare again to music. In Western culture, our eyes are constantly accustomed to the Prestissimo tempo. But imagine if every song on the radio was at this pace, Beethoven Piano Trio in C minor. 4 - Prestissimo[1] , our ears would probably be exhausted. Or it would set that as the standard. In some instances, films do work at this pace because the director, writer and editor have shaped it that way to infer theme or style.

A perfect example of this would be “Goodfellas”. I’ll always remember Martin Scorsese saying he had people requesting he make a film like the last 15 minutes of “Goodfellas” because of its frantic energy. But those 15 minutes were a tempo that was built up to by the preceding 120 minutes, which explored various other tempos. But overall, it was already at a heighted pace, perhaps in a Vivace tempo, which Scorsese said was inspired by the first 5 minutes of Truffaut’s Jules et Jim[2] .

On the other hand, a film like “Barry Lyndon” or “2001” is criticized for its excruciating pace. Yet, they both have a very deliberate and steady pace. No editor could criticize those films for being badly paced because they’re not. They work in slower movements like perhaps Chopin’s Adagio[3] . One film explores a pace that would be customary in 19th century England and the other reflects a pace that might be found in the boundlessness of the galaxy.

Now let’s look at pacing on a stricly writing perspective. There are films like those of Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not to Be or Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three which don’t employ the fastest cuts - certainly nothing compared to modern television. And yet, they could similarly be placed in the vivace tempo because of their electric dialogue. The performances lend way and cement a faster pace even if the editor isn’t keeping up. Add this style of writing and performance to the editing of Scorsese and you get something like David Fincher’s The Social Network.

I think it takes a tremendous skill as a writer, director and editor to create a symphony of invisible tempos that gel together seamlessly. Few films, IMO, master it but some that I would say do include: A Man Escaped, Pulp Fiction, High and Low, Back to the Future, Vengeance is Mine, Scott Pilgrim, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Conversation, and The Wages of Fear.

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